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‘Ozark’ review: Jason Bateman good in mediocre story about money launderer

Jason Bateman heads for the hills on

Jason Bateman heads for the hills on "Ozark." Photo Credit: Netflix / Jackson Davis


WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is a Chicago financial planner by day, and money launderer to Mexican drug lord Del Rio (Esai Morales) by night. Then, one fateful night, Del Rio comes to town. He wants to know who has been skimming the profits. Marty’s partners feign ignorance — then confess to stealing $8 million. Del Rio slaughters the lot, but when he turns the gun on Marty, Marty starts to talk fast: If Del Rio lets him go to Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, he can open up brand-new markets for him without the Feds’ scrutiny.

Instead, Marty is directed to go there to launder the $8 million. Marty heads home to tell his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), and kids Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) that they’re moving south. His life is about to become even more complicated because FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner) — who’s been tailing him — follows him to the lake, while another drug kingpin has already set up shop there. This guy’s been there a long time and is well-armed, too.

MY SAY Lake of the Ozarks is technically a reservoir, but “lake” sounds better, so lake it is and has been for nearly a century. Snaking through the low hill country of south-central Missouri, the lake is home to many people, but many more boats. This may be the leisure boat capital of the country, maybe the whole world. But beyond the floating parties and crowds — mostly in the east end — there are hundreds of miles of remote shoreline, while just over the hills crowding them are even more remote communities with colorful names like Racket, Wisdom and (best of all) Tightwad.

Seems like a fine place to set a series about drug running, money laundering and the superficially wholesome family engaged in both. In fact, setting has taken precedence over the story in “Ozark” because it is so exotic and compelling. The Byrdes are fish out of water, who find a place to start fresh but hide at the same time. Marty clearly had no clue what he was getting into because he hatched this plan on the fly to avoid execution. Now he’s forced to adapt on the fly. His big challenge: That sinuous lake holds lots of secrets, many of them deadly.

Even if this premise sounds like a whopper — and does veer perilously close to that at times — it’s not a bad one, while that vast man-made lake is accommodating, too. Where “Ozark” falls apart is in the telling. The characters don’t much help its cause, either. Marty Byrde is a lubricious yuppie who talks a lot and says nothing. Either willfully ignorant or as simple-minded as he is, Wendy has no clue what her spouse is up to, nor cares. She’s too busy having quickies with his lawyer, who’s set up a hidden camera so Marty can watch. They’re not only tacky but instantly unlikable — even hateable. Where to go from there?

To that lake, of course. “Ozark” begins a restoration project on these two by the second episode, and does make some headway with them. To save the family and themselves, they become a reluctant team, and discover they’re a little more resourceful than they (or we) realized.

What doesn’t make much headway is the story. “Ozark” can be excruciatingly cumbersome. There are many moving parts, none compelled to move with haste. If the characters were more engaging and likable, pace might not even be an impediment. They’re not, so it is.

BOTTOM LINE A summer potboiler that comes to life only intermittently, or by accident.

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